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Earth has been this warm before- what’s different now?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I’m a little late to the news about the epic charts produced by Shaun Marcott at Oregon State in his paper that traces global climate temperature anomalies back some 11,000 years (link). But for posterity, here is the main takeaway from his paper:

Marcott and his colleagues constructed this history of our planet’s temperature using ocean fossil records. (Science)

We can see the temperature anomalies relative to a baseline of temperatures between 1961 and 1990. Note the warming period from 10,000 years ago up through 6,000 years ago, the gradual cooling, and then the abrupt uptick recently.

A lot has already been said about the results. For that, I direct you to Dot Earth, which has an informative exchanges between Andy Revkin and experts in the climate change science field. There is also The Atlantic, which cuts to the chase with its article: “We’re Screwed: 11,000 Years of Climate Data to Prove It”. Tell us how you really feel!

Are we royally screwed, as The Atlantic suggests? This much we know: yes, the global climate has been warming at an alarming rate not seen at any other time in our history, as far as we can tell. The planet has been this warm before yes, but it had millennia to get to that point, and only since we’ve burned everything in sight to fuel our industrial revolutions have we apparently climbed our way out of another multi-millennial cooling cycle.

I’m generally an optimist, but I am worried because there are several major differences between the Bronze Age and modern times. What worries me about climate change is the rate of change. The last time the planet was this warm, humans had mastered bronze metallurgy (huzzah!), and warmer temperatures and our new found technology helped fuel agricultural expansion that ultimately allowed city-states to exist. Third millennium BC civilization had more time to adapt to a warming climate, and even then, not everyone made out on the other side (for a multitude of reasons, aforementioned warring city-states being one of them).

Fast forward to modern times, and we now count the population in billions, up from tens of millions. While we like to think of ourselves as a highly mobile society, with our iPhones, and cars, and intercontinental flights, we are in fact an extremely immobile society in terms of our infrastructure and resources. We aren’t wandering the plains tracking buffalo anymore – we are rooted in our homes and condos and to our farms and water reservoirs. No longer are effects isolated to a small band of people – a shift in rain patterns here, or a rise in sea level there, can mean millions or billions of dollars in lost infrastructure and damages.

So yes, I’m worried. I’m worried that we have goosed the climate system in the last 100 years or so, and we’re moving even slower than the climate at adapting to the coming changes. Changes that have happened throughout our history, as we can see, but now with more mobility constraints and greater resource dependencies.

More to come on this, as always.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Agesilaus 8:15 pm 03/19/2013

    You should check the current news before posting these things. Steve McIntyre has completely debunked this paper. The author shifted the dates of data from the cores from the original dates assigned by the people who generated the data. Oddly he sent the cold data back into the past (as much as 1000 years in some cases), while moving warm data from the past forward to the near present. No surprise, he generated a hockey stick with that tactic. If you can come up with an innocent explanation for this we’d like to hear it.

    Link to this
  2. 2. dwbd 8:26 pm 03/19/2013

    “…So yes, I’m worried. I’m worried that we have goosed the climate system in the last 100 years or so…”

    If that is REALLY true, then you would be a strong proponent of Nuclear Power. So are you?

    Link to this
  3. 3. sault 12:48 am 03/20/2013

    Agesilaus,

    Stephen McIntyre is NOT a climate scientist and I believe you are talking about the long-dismissed “paper” he wrote with McKittrick, not the new study highlighted in this article. The U.S. Academy of Sciences determined that the “hockey stick” paper published by Michael Mann was entirely valid way back in 2006. So why are you repeating canards that were disproved over 6 years ago?

    McIntyre has gotten very rich from fossil fuels:

    “McIntyre worked for 30 years in the mineral business,[3] the last part of these in the hard-rock mineral exploration as an officer or director of several public mineral exploration companies.[4] He was a policy analyst for several years for the governments of Ontario and of Canada.[5] He was the president and founder of Northwest Exploration Company Limited and a director of its parent company, Northwest Explorations Inc. When Northwest Explorations Inc. was taken over in 1998 by CGX Resources Inc. to form the oil and gas exploration company CGX Energy Inc.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_McIntyre

    Of course, I’m open to ANY proof you can provide you back up your points. Just spare us the ranting from denier blogs, will you? They contribute NOTHING to the debate and tarnish your credibility a great deal. Just sayin’.

    Link to this
  4. 4. sault 12:52 am 03/20/2013

    dwbd,

    Sorry, but nuclear power failed SPECTACULARLY back in the 70′s and 80′s, wasting precious time and billion$$$ on its failed promise of electricity “too cheap to meter”. It’s just too expensive and it takes WAY too long to build these reactors properly for them to play anything more than a minor role in limiting the effects of climate change. And the fact that India, Pakistan and now Iran have used their civilian nuclear power programs as cover for their nuclear weapons programs means that this technology is more trouble than it’s worth.

    Link to this
  5. 5. sault 1:04 am 03/20/2013

    The deniers repeating the laughable claim that “we’re recovering from the last Ice Age” clearly haven’t looked at the data. Anyway, this new study affirms that there’s yet ANOTHER “hockey stick” to add to the HOCKEY LEAGUE:

    http://skepticalscience.com/broken-hockey-stick.htm

    Mr. Wogan brings up points that aren’t stressed nearly enough. The current RATE of temperature change is UNPRECEDENTED in the climate record and the biosphere has orders of magnitude less time to adapt to these changes as it had before humans came on the scene. In addition, we have trillion$$$ worth of infrastructure in place that’s vulnerable to climate change. We also have several countries that have shown a willingness to go to war over resources already and there is absolutely no place for the growing numbers of climate refugees we will see in the coming decades to go.

    So yes, the people advocating a “wait-and-see” approach towards reducing GHG emissions are advocating a MUCH riskier path. Why would we keep treading closer to this bleak future when energy efficiency and renewables can lower the odds of catastrophe all while making the environment cleaner and our bodies healthier?

    Link to this
  6. 6. sault 1:05 am 03/20/2013

    The deniers repeating the laughable claim that “we’re recovering from the last Ice Age” clearly haven’t looked at the data. Anyway, this new study affirms that there’s yet ANOTHER “hockey stick” to add to the HOCKEY LEAGUE:

    http://skepticalscience.com/broken-hockey-stick.htm

    Mr. Wogan brings up points that aren’t stressed nearly enough. The current RATE of temperature change is UNPRECEDENTED in the climate record and the biosphere has orders of magnitude less time to adapt to these changes as it had before humans came on the scene. In addition, we have trillion$$$ worth of infrastructure in place that’s vulnerable to climate change. We also have several countries that have shown a willingness to go to war over resources already and there is absolutely no place for the growing numbers of climate refugees we will see in the coming decades to go.

    So yes, the people advocating a “wait-and-see” approach towards reducing GHG emissions are advocating a MUCH riskier path. Why would we keep treading closer to this bleak future when energy efficiency and renewables can lower the odds of catastrophe all while making the environment cleaner and our bodies healthier?

    Link to this
  7. 7. Carlyle 2:42 am 03/20/2013

    So sault, are you prepared to unequivocally declare that Stephen McIntyre is wrong? You obviously have not read what he published on the matter yet you say you are open to proof. In your world anything that does not confirm your views is false.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Paul A 9:27 am 03/20/2013

    @ Agesilaus
    So, is McIntyre going to compile his own reconstruction of past temperature and submit it to a science journal, or is this just more fodder for the faithful who visit his blog? Sniping from his blog adds nothing to science. Maybe, deep down, McIntyre knows he has nothing to offer apart from supplying talking points to science deniers.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Carlyle 9:40 am 03/20/2013

    You obviously have not read his report either. He uses the same data & shows how it has been misused in this travesty the authors call science.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Quantumburrito 10:55 am 03/20/2013

    sault, check out the new Gen IV modular reactors and the traveling wave reactor funded by Bill Gates. Also, read the book on thorium by Richard Martin. There’s a lot of promising new designs which avoid the drawbacks pertaining to proliferation, cost and safety associated with the old ones .

    Link to this
  11. 11. syzygyygyzys 11:45 am 03/20/2013

    I’m beginning to figure out just what these comment sections are. They are chat rooms where mostly the same people talk to each other. I looked up “internet tough guy” in the Urban dictionary. Many participants here seem to fall into a variation on “internet tough guy”.

    In the case you are new to SA online and thought the comments might be informative, maybe this observation will save you some time. I take that back. If you are approaching the comments from a “Gorillas in the Mist” standpoint, then reading them might be interesting.

    Link to this
  12. 12. bobfishell 12:10 pm 03/20/2013

    Mike Mann contends that the trolls who show up on these message boards are part of an organized (and funded) campaign, and I tend to agree with him. Comment moderation sometimes helps, but in most cases, a better solution is simply to close down the comments sections altogether.

    Link to this
  13. 13. davidwogan 12:50 pm 03/20/2013

    @Sault – thanks for your comment(s). You got the point I was trying to make about adaptation. As I see it, climate change adaptation is a conservative idea in principle, in that it’s a matter of risk management; the potential risks of inaction far outweigh the risks of upgrading infrastructure and technology. Worst case scenario is: we develop new technology, improve aging infrastructure, and hopefully grow the economy a bit.

    Link to this
  14. 14. davidwogan 1:57 pm 03/20/2013

    @Shoshin your comments appear to be showing up on this thread… Not sure what you mean by censoring.

    With that said, let’s keep the discussion civil and on topic. Conspiracy theories etc aren’t constructive.

    Link to this
  15. 15. curiouswavefunction 2:06 pm 03/20/2013

    Shoshin, take it easy. If you disagree with an article you can voice your disagreement and point out what you think are flaws but it’s ridiculous to ask that it be retracted. Sci Am bloggers are the only ones who decide what does and does not appear on their blog. And blog posts are not moderated or edited by Sci Am editors so there’s no point in emailing them. Please feel free to disagree and respectfully debate but it’s not up to you to decide what appears in blog posts.

    Link to this
  16. 16. davidwogan 2:11 pm 03/20/2013

    10 points for @curiouswavefunction

    Link to this
  17. 17. phalaris 2:17 pm 03/20/2013

    sault -
    where nuclear has been allowed to, it has delivered spectacularly, as in France, and in many other countries has delivered large amounts of virtually C02-free power.
    The only thing standing in its way is the nuclear-phobia which certain sections find it politically advantageous to foster and exploit.

    What is not going to deliver in any significant amount are the so-called renewables. Just look up Mackay, and try practicing a little elementary arithmetic.

    Link to this
  18. 18. dwbd 9:01 pm 03/20/2013

    @davidwogan: “..Worst case scenario is: we develop new technology, improve aging infrastructure, and hopefully grow the economy a bit..”

    More like current worst case scenario we PRETEND we are doing something by squandering $trillions in precious capital on fantasy renewable energy which so far haven’t done ZIP and show not even the slightest chance that they ever will amount to more than bit players in Global Energy production. By foolishly living in a fantasy world of non-solutions, our opportunity to solve the problem, already squandered by 25yrs of an outright blockade of Nuclear Energy, is rapidly diminishing. And the real winner in this Renewable Energy Charade will be the same old Coal, Oil & Gas and I can’t believe anybody is so gullible or foolish to think that they don’t know that.

    Link to this
  19. 19. sault 9:55 pm 03/20/2013

    phalaris,

    Advanced reactors show some promise, but even some of the experimental reactors built in the 60s need to be scaled up by 20x or more and get a commercial fuel supply chain up and running before we have ANY idea of their true potential. Just like all those fusion reactors look cool on paper, it doesn’t mean that we’ll be roasting marshmallows in a Tokamak next Fall!

    All realistic projections of advanced nuclear reactor development say that they will play an extremely minor role until the 2030′s at the earliest, if they pan out at all. Efficiency and renewables are ALREADY cutting pollution today, so we should try to maximize their potential as much as possible while developing the most promising advanced nuclear concepts for the last 10% or so of electricity demand that is hard to cover in some areas.

    Regardless of what hucksters like McIntyre and other so-called “experts” on the fossil fuel payrolls will say, we don’t have the time to wait for potential energy miracles 20 or more years in the future. We need GHG emissions reductions NOW and that should be apparent from the science that is screaming off the pages of this report and countless more if people cared to look. If advanced reactors pan out, then that’s great, but if they don’t, then we’ll have decades more experience developing and deploying efficiency and renewables at our disposal as we totally eliminate fossil fuels from our energy diet.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Shoshin 10:20 pm 03/20/2013

    Sault:

    Please post your evidence that McIntyre is on the payroll of Big Oil. Sierra Club took $26 million from the gas industry to trash the coal industry. Is McIntyre in the same league?

    Link to this
  21. 21. sault 12:58 am 03/21/2013

    Again, reading comprehension. It’s a thing. See post #3. And I call baloney on your charge against the Sierra Club. Since two wrongs don’t make a right, why are you trying to change the subject anyway?

    Link to this
  22. 22. Agesilaus 9:15 am 03/21/2013

    Why don’t you look at this:

    Where the redating is laid out in detail. There cannot be an innocent explanation for this.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Shoshin 11:57 am 03/21/2013

    Hey Sault, I just asked you to provide evidence of your allegations. Obviously you don’t have any, so please retract. You know, the kind of thing that Marcott needs to do but won’t either.

    Re: Sierra Club http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/science/earth/after-disclosure-of-sierra-clubs-gifts-from-gas-driller-a-roiling-debate.html?_r=0

    Oh, let me guess? In your world the NYT is ion the pay of Big Oil too?

    Link to this
  24. 24. Shoshin 11:58 am 03/21/2013

    Hi Sault,

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/science/earth/after-disclosure-of-sierra-clubs-gifts-from-gas-driller-a-roiling-debate.html?_r=0

    Eco rot runs deep.

    Link to this
  25. 25. Shoshin 11:59 am 03/21/2013

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/science/earth/after-disclosure-of-sierra-clubs-gifts-from-gas-driller-a-roiling-debate.html?_r=0

    Link to this
  26. 26. Shoshin 12:00 pm 03/21/2013

    Sault,

    Google NYT, Sierra Club and Chesapeake. $26 million.

    Sorry, but you need to re-adjust your belief system.

    Link to this
  27. 27. sault 7:29 pm 03/21/2013

    Age,

    I guess you want us to look at NOTHING!!! Seems par for the course; deniers can’t muster EVEN ONE scientific paper to back them up!

    Link to this
  28. 28. Germanicus 7:49 am 03/22/2013

    Archilaus

    Pls reconsider–or expect your grandkids to deny they ‘evah hoid o’ da bum’ [boxing patois; flix 1941-44].

    Some 18% of Americans declare they’ll NEVER believe in global warming, anthro or natural–evidence notw/standing!

    Why?…because to recognize it means collapse of an entire weltanschauung of interlocking views/values about Deity, marketplace, politics, guns, jobs, race, zoning, fertility control, fossil fuels, nanny-state vs. primacy of individuation, etc–a sociologist’s dream of pathology upon which careers can be built…psychodynamically, it’s identical to the logic-tight compartments of racism, anti-Semitism, anti-socialism, pro-war sentiment & jingoist hegemonism.

    Facts mean nothing to ideologues, but even some conservatives are disposing of their beach-front properties, a plangent anticipation of ecogees.

    Link to this
  29. 29. jimfromcanada 10:43 pm 03/25/2013

    sault: The comment that we have unprecedented rates of change of temperature is true only for increases of temperature. Large volcanic eruptions manage to lower global temperatures even quicker.

    Link to this
  30. 30. Geologon 1:18 pm 03/27/2013

    I am more than skeptical about all these supposedly scientific studies. Common sense indicates that there is a lot of propaganda driven by political and economical issues behind all these. The tactics of demagogy are being used. The results of the Doha conference show unambiguously that the more advanced countries are also the ones that are moving out of the carbon orthodoxy and away from the economic disadvantage it implies. And when I say advanced, I mean scientifically developed too…

    Link to this

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